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You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you show up wearing a tacky sweater and parachute pants, nobody will care what you have to say. The same goes for headlines: spending hours researching and formatting your blog posts is useless if nobody reads them.

You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you show up wearing a tacky sweater and parachute pants, nobody will care what you have to say.

The same goes for headlines: spending hours researching and formatting your blog posts is useless if nobody reads them. At Ghost Works, we often say that creation is only 50% of the content game: without distribution, the content doesn't play. Engagement is the lubrication of distribution: posts that engage organically get more shares and capture more attention.

Writing the perfect headline requires a delicate balance of art and science. But if it’s done correctly, you can surge past the competition -- and there’s data to show how. Here are five evidence-based strategies for writing clickable headlines.

1. Ask questions?

In an analysis of over a million blog posts,  TrackMaven discovered that nearly 95% of the headlines did not contain a question mark. However, the 5% of blog posts that did ask a question accounted for 46% of the total social shares.

Question-based headlines are far more engaging than simply shoving information at readers. Questions trigger curiosity and a desire to know the answer. That being said, slapping a question mark at the end of a headline won’t cut it (see this subheader as an example!)

Question-based headlines must deliver a real and thorough answer to the question posed. And be warned: many readers are skeptical of these types of headlines.

Consider Betterridge’s Law of Headlines:

"Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

Although this adage is humorous, it proves itself true more often than not.

Bottom line: Inspire curiosity, but if the automatic response to a headline is “no,” go back to the drawing board.

2. Optimize for keywords and length

Optimizing your blog posts for SEO is smart. But when 59% of people are sharing headlines without even reading the article, that’s a sign you should channel your creativity towards better headlines.

There are two key elements of the search-friendly headline: relevant keywords and a reasonable length.

1. Keywords: Descriptive language isn’t just better for search engines, it’s appealing to readers too. Consider these two headlines:

“You’ll love our new delicious ice cream flavor”

“Looking for treats in Cincinnati? This Maple-Bacon Ice Cream Will Make Your Jaw Drop”

You can guess which one will be on top of the reader’s mind (and on top of the Google results).

Just be sure that these SEO keywords are relevant to the article and not just to the search engine. Think of the reader first, and then the search algorithm.

2. Length: Keep the length reasonable. According to Outbrain, 16 to 18 words is the ideal headline length. This keeps a headline shareable on social media while also ensuring the headline isn't cut off in search results.

3. Use numb3rs

The human brain craves clarity. And like it or not, lists and numbers are the simplest way to break down complexity. As you can see from this study by Conductor, that preference is no different when it comes to headlines.

Numbers are easier to understand for most people.

But numbered headlines are more than just a preference. In addition to how straightforward numbered headlines are for writers, Hubspot identifies other advantages of list posts for publishers, including:

  • More clicks
  • More engagement
  • More social sharing
  • More time on page
  • More organic traffic
  • More conversions
  • More comments
  • Lower bounce rate

Readers associate long lists with greater value. It’s not uncommon to see lists of 25 or even 100 things go viral. This relates to numerosity, or our unconscious preference for large numbers.

While the brain is wired to see larger quantities as more favorable, the quantity also matters: An odd number stands out even more.

Headlines with odd numbers generate 20% more clicks than headlines with even numbers. -Hubspot

Bottom line: Get specific. The more details the better. Telling the reader exactly what they’ll learn can entice them to click, not to mention those keywords are good for SEO.

4. Use cliffhangers

If you thought cliffhangers were reserved for TV shows, think again. A cliffhanger is one of the most powerful (and profitable) tools for capturing a reader’s attention.

Not long ago, Moz conducted an overhaul of its landing page that resulted in over $1 million in revenue. The strategy? Remove phrases like “buy now” or “check out...” from headlines and use headlines like this instead: “When eBay and Disney need SEO help, here’s what they do…”

Just like an addicting Netflix series, a cliffhanger headline creates an open loop in the back of the reader’s mind that can only be closed by reading the article. For example:

Instead of...

“Try These Social Media Tips to Optimize Your Conversion Rate”


“These 5 Silly Mistakes Are Costing You Thousands of Clicks - Even Though You Don’t Know It”

Bottom line: Just like with questions, make the reader want to find out the answer. Just be sure to deliver on the cliffhanger surprise. If it's a let down, the reader could feel ripped off. This diminishes the positive brand building aspects of content marketing.

5. Make it about your reader, not your brand

Buffer analyzed the word choice in 3,016 headlines from 24 of the most popular websites on the web. These are the results:

Notice that (other than neutral words like “the” and “this”) “you” was the among the most popular words. “Your” in the top 20 as well. Combined, these two pronouns appeared in 16% of all the headlines in the study.

Bottom line: Content that addresses the reader, and add value to his or her life, generally performs well. Talking too much about your brand is tantamount to being a boring dinner party guest. A great conversationalist asks questions, listens, and makes it about the other person. Provide value and watch your shares go up!

Putting it all together

Now that we broke down the formula for irresistible headlines, here’s an example of all five components tied together:

Do You Eat These 3 Superfoods After High-Intensity Cardio? The Results Are Life-Changing.

Question? ✅

Number? ✅

Keywords? ✅

Cliffhanger? ✅

Reader-oriented? ✅

Now that you have a compelling content, just be sure to craft compelling content to match!

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